Why Do Some Army Recruits Fail?

November 16th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Why Do Some Army Recruits Fail?

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 15, 2006
Pg. 1

The science of the 'right stuff'; Researchers seek to understand -- and overcome -- the biology of stress that makes some men and women fail to complete basic training.
By Bill Hendrick
Fort Benning -- It's a sunny day on Malone Range 11 and more than 200 fresh-faced recruits are sweating in the dust of aptly named Sand Hill, preparing to fire their M16-A2 assault rifles for the first time under the gaze of bellowing drill sergeants.
Someone else is watching too: a soft-spoken scientist, 63-year-old Dr. William "Hawk" Reeves of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He's part of a team of researchers enlisted by the Army to find out why so many young men and women who want to become soldiers wash out of basic training and get sent home.
The Army, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with commitments elsewhere, is stretched so thin that this year it raised the maximum enlistment age to 42, the highest since at least World War I, according to military historian Donald Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh. During the Vietnam War, men could sign up until age 34.
Now the Army has signed up Reeves and a half-dozen other scientists to find ways to reduce the 15 percent basic-training attrition rate and keep the ranks from thinning more -- and to keep from wasting the $20,000 every washout costs taxpayers.
Sergeants may be tough on the recruits, but they work hard to turn every one into a soldier. Some of those who run into trouble get "recycled" -- forced to repeat training. Some who get sent home are found to have lied about mental problems such as depression, or about previous injuries or medical conditions like asthma.
Some just decide they want to quit, and are sent home if counselors can't convince them to give it another try, said Maj. Roger Bannon, 48, of Fortson, one of the researchers. A few can't cope with the battery of probing questionnaires that can dredge up bad memories of childhood. Some go into counseling.
Search for 'biomarkers'
Reeves and Dr. James F. Jones, both experts on chronic fatigue at the CDC, are studying the blood of trainees for stress "biomarkers" they hope will predict which ones are most likely to have trouble. Jones was recruited to work for the CDC four years ago after 20 years at the University of Colorado.
Psychologists from a handful of universities, including Emory, are also participating in the study, focusing on signals as to who's likely to get pushed over the edge by stress.
From the time the recruits pour off the buses that bring them to Fort Benning, the stress is unrelenting.
They're greeted with screams. Their heads are sheared. They're told not to talk or lean against walls, that they can't go to the bathroom without permission. They're yelled at during close-order drill, while running, in mess-hall lines, and when they're tear-gassed (to prepare them for gas attacks).
The first do-or-die test of their susceptibility to life's stressors comes on the rifle range, where the trainees are told they must learn to shoot straight or they'll either fail or start all over again, which could be psychologically disastrous, said Army Col. Richard Gonzalez, 52, the study's principal investigator.
Gonzalez dreamed up the project after returning to Fort Benning from a 14-month stint as a front-line surgeon in Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, soldiers were constantly fatigued," said Gonzalez, a physician and chief of the Departments of Surgery and Warrior Care at Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital. "When I got back here last year, I saw the same kind of fatigue [among trainees]. I wanted to look at soldiers from the beginning, wondering about stress-related problems."
As a scientist and 30-year Army veteran, he began a search for answers in medical journals, and found peer-reviewed studies indicating CDC researchers had isolated stress markers in the blood that correlated with extreme fatigue.
The markers are proteins and hormones in the blood, and they can reveal how much stress a person has endured during a lifetime, Gonzalez said.
A rush of stress hormones or proteins, said the CDC's Jones, not only can trigger mental problems, but also can weaken a soldier's immune system and bones, leading to stress fractures that are common in basic training.
Constantly frazzled
On Malone Range 11, the men can see their sergeants, but also observers like Reeves, an energetic man who on one recent day walked up and down behind the firing line, dressed in black uniform, black boots and a black boonie field hat that made his snow-white beard stand out.
Pvt. Michael Jaramillo, 23, of Madison said the firing range is nerve-wracking "because nobody wants to fail."
It's a no-brainer that the recruits are constantly frazzled, but Gonzalez wants to look for under-the-skin signs of life's accumulated stress that he hopes will provide clues about which soldiers may have problems in combat -- or sooner.
After finding studies that seemed to describe illnesses in troops he'd seen firsthand, both in Afghanistan and at Fort Benning, he applied for and won a $250,000 grant from the Army's scientific arm and contacted the CDC, which embraced the idea.
Gonzalez said his hope is that blood markers found in recruits will give the Army the information it needs to make training less stressful. A change in diet, or vitamins and medicines could bolster their health.
When the recruits of Echo Company got off their buses in early September, they not only were greeted by sergeants bellowing orders, but also by Bannon, a wisecracker who calmly explained to the privates that a study was about to start and that they could volunteer to answer a few extra questionnaires and give a little more blood than other rookies. Most volunteered and agreed to give more blood and answer more questions on sick call visits and at the end of training in December.
"We have the blood and urine before training starts that should tell us something about their stress," Bannon said. "We'll have that to compare with the same markers if they wash out or get recycled or sent to medical rehab. And then we'll test it all again after the ones who make it graduate. It's a perfect laboratory."
Bannon said, "Our hypothesis is that those who get through will show fewer biological stress factors than those who don't or those who get hurt or go on sick call a lot."
In the spring, Bannon said, a similar study will be done at Fort Jackson, S.C., on female recruits, who wash out at three times the rate of men. Then the scientists will try out various interventions on new recruits, hoping to see if small changes in routine or diet can help.
"It's a good bet that people with a lot of stress markers will have more trouble than those who don't," Bannon said.
Body stores stress
Stress, Bannon said, "is permanent but it's also dynamic. From the time you were born, your central nervous system started experiencing stressors. If you had an abusive stepparent who drank Budweiser and whenever he drank, he got very violent and hit you with his red shovel over the head, the stress is stored in your body."
Psychological tests, he said, can reveal whether a soldier came from a bad environment at home and is just looking for a new home in the Army.
Jones, 64, isn't as flamboyant as Reeves, who is given to shooting any kind of weapon he can get his hands on and even crawling around under live rifle fire in the dark with recruits.
Reeves also fired an M16-A2 right alongside the recruits, and did as well as an expert marksman.
Inside the CDC, he's just known as an expert on physiological markers of cumulative wear and tear on the body caused by inadequate adaptation to accumulated stress.
"No study has specifically evaluated these variables as risk factors for injury, illness or heat exhaustion following acute stress," Gonzalez said. "Once we find that elevated [stress levels] indicate a soldier at risk, you can train him differently, smarter, employ relaxation techniques. This is what we hope."
U.S. Army demographics
2005 -- White: 66.9%, Black: 14.5%, Hispanic: 13.2%
2001 -- White: 60.2%, Black: 22.3%, Hispanic: 10.5%
Average age of recruits -- 2005: 20.8 years, 2001: 19.8 years
Source: Chicago Tribune
November 16th, 2006  
interesting read.
November 17th, 2006  
Originally Posted by Team Infidel
Reeves also fired an M16-A2 right alongside the recruits, and did as well as an expert marksman.
That's what we like to see - if the medicine doesn't work, he can always go to the rifle. Interesting story.

Similar Topics
Army's New Battle Cry Aims At Potential Recruits
Officers Leave Army Hurting
Army Ends Best Recruit Year Since 1997
US Army recruited an autistic teenager as Cav Scout
Will there be a draft?